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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New Maui fire report shows utility waited hours to respond to broken power line

By Brianna Sacks and Anumita Kaur Washington Post

Hawaii’s electric utility did not respond quickly to the first alerts of its power lines breaking before the deadly Maui fire last August, according to a new timeline report by the Hawaii attorney general’s office, a lapse that experts say may have contributed to the deadliest fire in U.S. history.

The report shows the Maui Fire Department first learned a power pole had snapped, sending “low hanging wires across” the road at 5:16 a.m. on Aug. 8, prompting fire officers to immediately alert Hawaiian Electric, referred to as Maui Electric in the report. But a utility worker did not arrive on scene until hours later that afternoon, the report stated. By that point, numerous power lines had fallen in high winds, multiple fires were burning and, for most of the day, police officers and fire officials had no idea if the lines were de-energized or not, according to the timeline.

The 376-page report, conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute on behalf of Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez and released Wednesday, is the first in a three-phase probe into how and why the Lahaina brush fire turned so catastrophic. While it did not assign blame or responsibility for how the fire started and spread, it – along with an independently conducted Maui Fire Department report released earlier in the week – raises fresh questions about how Hawaiian Electric and multiple public agencies, including Maui County’s mayor, handled the disaster.

Hawaiian Electric did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has previously acknowledged its equipment probably caused the initial fire – known as the “morning fire” – which Maui firefighters worked to contain.

In a lawsuit against Maui County, Hawaiian Electric has blamed the county for failing to fully extinguish that fire, which the utility said was reignited and the cause of the blaze that destroyed Lahaina.

Maui County has rejected that assertion, as have some lawyers representing fire victims. Attorney Alexander Robertson IV said the attorney general’s report affirms that the utility failed to properly responded to downed power lines and also failed to de-energize its power lines at the first sign of trouble during a high-wind event, he said.

Had the utility followed standard practice to dispatch a repair crew and visually inspect that broken pole, “they never should have re-energized that line at 6:07 a.m. thereby causing the fire,” said Robertson, an attorney representing families who lost homes and loved ones in the blaze. “This horrible tragedy was entirely avoidable, in my opinion.”

Some wildfire experts and firefighters have also raised questions about Hawaiian Electric’s differentiation between a morning and afternoon fire, given that both came from the same original ignition.

Jonathon Golden, a former U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter, said that he’s “never heard of incidents being referred to like that, especially if the incident is in the same exact area.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Golden, now the executive director of the Wildfire Industry Collective. He also noted that a “contained” fire is not the same as a “controlled” fire. The latter means the blaze has been extinguished.

“Firefighters aren’t perfect and sometimes contained fires sneak past control lines,” Golden said. “Until that thing is controlled, it’s not out.”

The attorney general’s probe, which confirms the fire’s origin and how it spread, aligns with The Washington Post’s previous reporting on how the fire originated.

Residents told The Post they were awakened by an arc flash and strong winds in the early hours of Aug. 8. They noticed that their air conditioners and lights were off. Around 6 a.m., they said their power came back on. Data prepared by Whisker Labs, a company that monitors U.S. grids, also confirmed that the grid experienced faults at this time. Around 6:30 a.m., the residents started to smell smoke.

The fire occurred on a day when – despite red flag warnings, high wind watches and fire weather watches – the Maui Emergency Management Agency was understaffed, the attorney general’s report showed.

The agency usually operates with an administrator and eight full-time employees. On Aug. 7, the agency’s administrator at the time, Herman Andaya, was in Oahu at a conference, and another employee was unavailable.

The agency’s Emergency Operations Center – which is activated depending on weather incidents – was partially operating with two employees the day before the fire. The Emergency Operations Center wasn’t fully activated until 4:30 p.m. Aug. 8, well after the flames had begun to engulf Lahaina, with most of the agency’s employees assuming different roles to respond to the situation.

Other Maui County agencies, including the police and fire departments, maintained normal staffing and did not preposition employees for the increased risks, underscoring the island’s lack of preparedness. Hawaiian Electric maintained normal staffing as well.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen was also slow to treat the blazes as serious emergencies, according to the probe. Despite schools closing and multiple fires burning at once, Bissen refused to declare an emergency, saying it “was not necessary,” the report stated.

At 3:15 p.m., as the Lahaina fire grew quickly in intensity and size, state officials tried to get ahold of the mayor, asking if he was in the Emergency Operations Center, and were told “no.” Finally, at 8 p.m., Bissen signed an emergency order. By that time, Lahaina had already burned to the ground and scores of people were missing.

In its own investigation into its fire preparation and response, conducted by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, the Maui Fire Department highlighted significant lapses in planning and resources needed to respond to a major event. For example, their relief vehicles lacked standard equipment, which added to delays in deploying them.

In addition, neither the state nor the county has any official mutual aid agreements among their fire departments, resulting in a cumbersome and slow process for dispatching and relocating equipment. As has been previously reported, dry water hydrants and access severely impacted firefighters’ response, in what the report’s authors called “the worst-case scenarios.”

The chaos put police and firefighters in extremely dangerous situations. At least seven firetrucks were damaged, burned, or rendered immobile by tangled power lines, with firefighters incurring injuries, sprinting to save residents by carrying them on their backs, and having to try to rescue their own who were trapped in extremely hot, stranded engines.

Communication was also a major problem, the report said. Some fire department staff members did not receive information and remained unaware of the unfolding disaster. Top officers and certain fire department staff use the “WhatsApp” application for updates, but use of that app was not universal across the department.

The Maui Fire Department also lacks hand crews to perform brush-clearing work, the report noted, an essential tool in wildfire prevention.

The two reports come as Maui residents continue to seek answers on basic questions about the disaster.

For months, at least 90 lawsuits representing hundreds of victims had been stalled due to Hawaiian Electric’s demands to have them tried in federal court. At the same time, Maui County agencies have declined to answer fire investigators’ requests for all records and interviews, forcing investigators to issue 67 subpoenas so far to the Maui Emergency Management Agency and the water, police and fire departments.

“We have limited information from EOC, from MEMA. We have made multiple requests for that information,” said Derek Alkonis, research program manager for the Fire Safety Research Institute, during a news conference Wednesday on the report’s release.

Investigators have been asking for information such as emergency management-related plans; staffing records for the day of the fire; communications within teams just before and after the fire; a recent history of brush clearance; water level records; details regarding West Maui’s water pipe systems; and documents about multiagency training.